Racing: First lady of Aintree absent but not forgotten

GRAND NATIONAL WEIGHTS: The search for this year's winner starts with the publication of the burdens the beasts must bear
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The Independent Online
For the purists, the next, perhaps only, racing milestone is the Cheltenham Festival. But for those who mix concrete, type letters or put waiting tickets on windscreens the first gentle rumbling occurred yesterday.

The Grand National remains the great televised spectacle of British sport for the masses, and at the Dorchester Hotel in London yesterday the recondite procedure of allotting weights for the big-race field on 5 April was conducted.

The grand unveiling of the weights has lost its shock appeal since the Aintree obstacles were modified and the entries pinned with their official handicap marks. The constants that remain are the largesse of the sponsors, Martell, and an extraordinary compere's act from the former jockey Richard Pitman.

The buddy-buddy partnership between Martell, with its branded image of French sophistication and luxury (getting legless with style), and Aintree, where the streets are not paved with gold but rather last night's veneer of fish and chip wrapping, is rather odd.

Martell, however, do not remain in business because they dispense money unwisely. Much of their product has already found its way down the neck of the relevant parties (the Fourth Estate are mercifully not excluded) and there is always the promise of a BBC coverage which is hard to match in any sporting sphere, anywhere.

Pitman does his host's job regularly and with a consistently bawdy theme. His main track always seems to be to belittle his former wife, Jenny, who, unlike him, has actually won the National on two occasions. We have probably had enough of Pitman behaving badly.

The more serious matter this year concerns the Liverpool management effort's to get as many horses as possible into the handicap proper. Only 27 went to post last year, a figure which will be exceeded in April as the top- weight will now have to carry 12st (from 11st 10lb) and the entry qualifications - which barred such as the good stayer Killeshin last season - have been relaxed.

These days the Liverpool factor has limited significance. In olden times, an Aintree specialist was the equine equivalent of an infantryman who survived the Somme by either skill or God's grace. The recent modification of the fences has upset some of the firebrand dodderers, who presumably enjoyed watching the axle on the abattoir wagon scraping along the tarmac on the way out of the course, but it has also attracted the connections of the more talented horses.

It remains, however, a devilish race in which to have an ante-post bet as the most serious information for the race will be provided by the Cheltenham Festival, and even then a sapping race will militate against future success.

The short-priced horse to ignore at this stage is probably Coome Hill, who is prepared on a beach in Cornwall, which is where the links with Red Rum end. Even after a lavish lunch and the accompanying liquids, Walter Dennis, Coome Hill's trainer, would commit his horse no further than the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Lo Stregone, who would have been favourite last year but for contracting something close to a tropical disease on the eve of the race, and Encore Un Peu, Martin Pipe's runner-up 10 months ago, are both well fancied as no other race has been contemplated for them since the Easter Bunny emerged.

However, the press beam before Liverpool is bound to centre on Jenny Pitman, who has entries for four horses and a second husband in 1997. The grand dame of British racing was ill yesterday, but her prospective blushing groom, David Stait, was available. "Jenny is upset she can't go to the weights lunch as she feels she has let people down," he said. "She has got this flu which is going round - although there are one or two pressmen she wouldn't have minded passing it on to." And an ex-spouse too.